Nurture in
her nature

Much more than a florist, Sara Headley will this year again be putting on a Christmas dinner for the homeless and those in need at her café

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Sara Headley has many stories to tell. One of the most distressing is the tale of a family of African refugees who were dumped in Barnsley in the middle of the night.

“These people were literally thrown off a coach and left to fend for themselves,” she says. “They had no idea where they were, and it was freezing cold. The Red Cross had to come and get them, and from there they ended up coming to me. They had literally nothing. We gave them clothes and food.”

This unfortunate family, dispersed by the Home Office, are just one of the hundreds of vulnerable people helped by this 50-year-old mother of three.

It’s difficult to find a word to describe exactly what Sara does to help the countless individuals who find their way to her door: refugees, homeless people, parents who can’t afford to feed their children, lonely elderly souls and the people she describes as having “complex needs”, such as drug and alcohol dependency and mental health problems.

She’s not running a charity as such, although she welcomes donations of food, clothing, bedding, toys – anything that makes life more bearable for those who have little or nothing of their own. And although local government officials regularly direct their clients to her door, she has no agreed public funding.

Rather, for more than four years, she has been welcoming anyone in need to Sara’s Flowers and Teas, her florists-cum-tea-shop on Pitt Street in Barnsley.

Homelessness is on the rise in Barnsley, as it is almost everywhere. A particular growing concern is hidden homelessness, which forces people out into the town centre on a daily basis to escape overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation.

Joan Whitaker, chair of the Barnsley Federation of Tenants and Residents, says: “It’s worrying to know that Barnsley Council received 10,617 [homeless-related] calls in 2015/16.”

“These people were literally thrown off a coach and left to fend for themselves.”

Alongside council services, several local voluntary groups are supporting homeless people. They include Voluntary Action, the Barnsley Churches Drop-in Project, which provides hot meals three times a week, Action On Homelessness, whichs run a soup kitchen, Street Kitchen UK-Barnsley Tarn, a veterans’ soup kitchen, and the Rucksack Project, which collects warm clothes and essentials.

What can one woman do in the face of such problems, which affect not just Barnsley but so many towns and cities across the north? Headley admits that she does not possess a magic wand, but she does work closely with local council advisers, who find that even when services are on offer troubled individuals can’t bring themselves to seek help, either through shame, embarrassment or lack of confidence.

“There are a range of vulnerabilities including substance misuse, anti-social behaviour, homelessness and mental health,” says Jenny Platts, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council cabinet member for communities. “But the barrier can often be the unwillingness of people to engage with the services on offer.”

This is where Headley comes in. Because anyone can walk into her café straight off the street and there are so few questions asked, there are fewer barriers to access what she offers in terms of help.

“We get a lot of referrals from local council advisers and GPs,” she says. “Some of these people are so dedicated and spend so much time trying to help people, but there is a limited amount of resources. That’s why they end up sending people to me. The other day I had a call from a GP asking if I could give Christmas lunch to two of his patients, who are lonely elderly people on their own. We could deliver a meal to them, but it’s important that they come and eat with us. Having a meal delivered and sitting eating on their own just underlines their loneliness.”

She’s a trained florist but a self-taught cook who, along with her team of staff and volunteers, creates the most delicious cakes and hearty meals, using produce donated by local traders and supermarkets. These may be “paid on” by members of the public, so that a disadvantaged person can benefit from a hot meal without the indignity of standing at the till counting out their coins.

A similar arrangement is in operation for hot drinks. At Headley’s £2.50 buys a vulnerable person a brew. £9.95 covers the cost of a Christmas dinner, and donations are welcome.

In the school holidays, Headley, who is supported in her endeavours by her Dutch partner, Rein, offers a £1 budget menu to help parents who are struggling to feed their children. “At this time of year there are many families who are having to choose between heating and eating,” she says. “We have lots of mothers coming here during the day just to keep warm. They daren’t turn the heating on until their children get home from school, because it’s too expensive.”

“We want to create a place where anyone can come and find a safe place.”

Headley is modest about her achievements. She simply says that she saw that help was needed for people struggling to get by and responded. This dedication has turned her cafe into a major local landmark – and Headley herself into a local hero. Last year she was given the Duke of York’s community initiative award in recognition of her dedication to helping others, and she’s recently been honoured with the exceptional achievement trophy in the Pride of Barnsley Awards, run by the Barnsley Chronicle.

But all the accolades in the world do not please Headley as much as the project she hopes will ramp up what she can offer to the people of Barnsley. She was recently on the receiving end of violence in her own café. A regular customer, believed to be under the influence of psychosis-inducing drugs, attacked her. He has since died.

But understandably, the incident left her shaken. “It did make me question why I do what I do, but I didn’t want to give up,” she admits. Her saviour came in the genial shape of her commercial landlord, John Farnsworth. In a profession not often known for its generosity, he stands out as a beacon
of hope.

He’s offered Headley the building next door to the café, a magnificent former Methodist chapel which has previously been a pub and an advice centre.

Spurred on by her instinctive desire to help others, she is not only opening a new café – Sara’s Community Kitchen, which will offer lots of chances to help unemployed people back into work through volunteering – but an entire “museum of happiness”.

“We’re the first one in the country outside of London,” says Headley. “We want to create a place where anyone, regardless of who they are, can come and find a safe place, relax and find something to do.”

The London Museum of Happiness opened in Spitalfields in 2016 and is now based in Camden. The aim – shared by Headley and her team – is to improve emotional wellbeing and promote mindfulness.

Membership is open to all, with a very nominal joining fee. The space will be divided up into various areas, with expert tutors in activities such as African drumming and yoga and a supportive, welcoming atmosphere. There is to be a reading room, where you will be able to “give yourself a happiness check-up”, a wonder, awe and diversity room, an acceptance and resilience room, a fun room with a silent disco, and a kindness and compassion room, where members will be able to throw a coin into a forgiveness fountain and let go of a grudge.

It’s scheduled to open in the new year, but the first event will be the Christmas dinner for hundreds of local people in need. “I don’t stop to think about everything we do,” says Headley. “I just want everyone to know they have a place to go.”

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